Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Where have all the snowbanks gone?

Read more articles by

Photograph | Snow banks on Craig Street, Montreal, QC, 1869 | MP-0000.2871

Having just spent an hour pushing two cars out of the driveway at a friend’s cottage, it seems like an appropriate time to re-examine some of our expectations about winter mobility. After all, the practice of removing the snow from the streets of Montreal is less than a century old: throughout the 1800s, sidewalks were shovelled by local residents and snow was packed on the streets, creating a throughway for horse-drawn sleighs (see image of Craig Street, 1869, above).

With the rise of tramways, it became essential to clear the tracks and overhead wires, the cost being split between the company and the City of Montreal. It wasn’t until the advent of the car that snow became a public nuisance.

During a 1927 meeting (which, incidentally, took place in the Birks building) the Royal Automobile club resolved to lobby the provincial government to inaugurate a winter road maintenance policy, prioritizing the King-Edward highway (now 15 South), the Montreal-Quebec highway, and roads with a 25-mile radius of major cities. The cost was to be covered with a gasoline tax.

The following year, the decision was made to also maintain an open road between Montreal and New York city. A Gazette article describes that the cleared area would be 16 feet wide (to allow 2-way traffic) and that 6 inches of snow would be left on the road to allow farmers’ sleighs to travel.

By 1931, Quebec was clearing 361 miles (581 km) of road: the rest of the network was formally closed to motor traffic. Today the province of Quebec is responsible for 29,000 km of roadways and Montreal is responsible for over 5000 km.

Just another example of how the automobile has transformed our urban landscape, and our experience of the city in winter.

Photograph | Beaver Hall Hill, Montreal, QC, about 1900 | VIEW-3171.2

Packed snow towered above people’s heads on the city streets (Beaver Hall Hill, about 1900).

Photograph | Stormy day, St. Catherine Street, Montreal, QC, 1901 | VIEW-3449

Clearing St. Catherine Street tramway tracks, 1901

More historic photos of snowplows from Déneigement Montréal on flickr.




  1. Just having moved back to Montreal after 20 years in the country, I am struck with the grayness of winter in the city, and the general absence of snow. Not only do we expect to be move around in our vehicles, but we get none of that feeling of brightness and white expanses that make winter so magic. Perhaps we should put our vehicles on runners (like slieghs have), and keep the snow on the roads!

  2. Wow! Thanks for this window into the past. It never occurred to me what they did before the snow ploughs…This would have been a different city alright!

  3. Just found another interesting tidbit:

    The City of Montreal eventually took responsibility for clearing sidewalks after being sued on numerous occasions for damages sustained due to unmaintained sidewalks. In the three years leading up to 1905, the city payed out a total of $31,000 in compensation for falls on the sidewalks. 

    Source: Montreal Gazette 1905,249801&dq=montreal+removal-of-snow&hl=en

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *